Dominica has established a Sperm Whale Reserve off the Caribbean side of the island to ensure the gigantic mammals will not become extinct.
The new reserve will help generate tourism income while also protecting a species under increased threat from human activity. Scientists involved in its planning and establishment assert that protection of almost 800 square kilometres will deliver multiple benefits.
Sperm whales have the largest brains on earth, matrilineal societies, and a complex language. They are the planet’s largest-toothed predator with males on average 16 metres (52ft) long – bigger than a school bus. Sperm whales are found worldwide – from Iceland to New Zealand. But Dominica is one of the few countries in the world where sperm whales can be seen consistently throughout the year. Dominica offers a unique habitat where a resident population of sperm whales finds food and shelter, making the west coast of the island critical feeding and nursing grounds.
“The 200 or so sperm whales that call our sea home are prized citizens of Dominica,” said Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit. “Their ancestors likely inhabited Dominica before humans arrived. We want to ensure these majestic and highly intelligent animals are safe from harm and continue keeping our waters and our climate healthy. Dominica is honoured to establish the first Sperm Whale Reserve on our planet.”
Once the reserve is established, a Senior Whale Officer and observers stationed to tourism and research vessels will oversee and reinforce the expanded whale tourism regulations. Sustainable fishing, which does not interfere with the sperm whales’ behaviour or compete with them for food, will be permitted. Visitors to Dominica will have the opportunity to swim with these whales or view them from a boat, but they will do so in more sustainable numbers and under new strict regulations, to ensure that the sperm whales and other species of whales and dolphins aren’t disturbed.
“Protecting these whales offers an incredible, cost-effective climate solution that has been overlooked by policymakers,” said Enric Sala, the founder of Pristine Seas and an Explorer in Residence at National Geographic. “By protecting sperm whales, Dominica is bolstering its climate resilience. The more sperm whales in Dominica’s waters, the more carbon sequestered in the deep sea, thus helping to mitigate global warming.” Sala has been advising the Dominica government on the establishment of the reserve.
Whale faeces are particularly climate-friendly. Sperm whales dive between 650-1000 metres deep to hunt squid. When they are at the surface between dives, they breathe, rest and defecate. Their nutrient-rich faeces – with iron concentrations 10 million times greater than the surrounding water at the surface – foster plankton blooms which capture carbon dioxide from seawater. When the plankton dies, it sinks to the deep sea with the carbon in it, thus becoming a carbon sink and helping to mitigate the impacts of global warming.
Based on a study of carbon sequestration by sperm whales elsewhere, and assuming 250 sperm whales currently in Dominica’s waters, Sala estimated that these whales could sequester 4,200 metric tonnes of carbon every year – equivalent to the carbon sequestered by 18,000 acres of US forests in one year.